Nat Turner - a national hero?

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Terry Dean

Today marks an anniversary that many may have long forgotten, if ever had known at all.

It was 179 years ago today that Nat Turner was killed, executed for leading nearly 100 slaves in rebellion against whites in 1831 Southampton, Va. White men, women and even children were slaughtered. An estimated 65 whites were killed. The rebellion, taking place during what surely must have been a hot Virginia August, was put down within a few days. Turner alluded capture for months. His cohorts were killed by white militias, as were hundreds of slaves and free blacks that had no part in the rebellion. They were killed in retaliation, and to send a message that slaves should remain in their place.

Turner was an educated, well-read and well-spoken black. After his death, legislatures across the south strengthened existing laws prohibiting blacks from receiving an education, among other restrictive laws. Opinions over the years, decades and centuries vary about Turner. Hero or villain? Savior or scourge? Was he insane? He reportedly had a vision about the rebellion shortly before launching it. Maybe he was "mad." Slavery might do that to a person. He actually may have been all of the above.

Over the weekend, CNBC re-aired one of its many news documentaries on modern day slavery. Women in this country and oversees kidnapped or tricked into becoming prostitutes. Children as well. Thinking about that, and Nat Turner's death approaching anniversary, I was reminded of the 1997 film Amistad, about the 1839 uprising of slaves who were kidnapped from their country and brought to America on the slave ship of the same name. I was reminded of the speech by John Quincy Adams - portrayed by Anthony Hopkins - to the U.S. Supreme Court to argue for the slaves' freedom ... freedom, a "controversial idea," Adams said.

"And the proof is the length to which a man, woman, or child will go to regain it, once taken. He will break loose his chains; he will decimate his enemies. He will try and try and try against all odds, against all prejudices, to get home."

Would anyone besmirch a woman for plotting to escape the enslaver who forced her - usually through physical violence - into prostitution, even if that meant having to kill her enslavers? To get home. To be free.

And she would be treated and celebrated as a hero, a survivor, for doing so, as she should. Her past, her personal faults, old parking tickets, late rent payments, whatever, would be moot points. Adams argued the same point in defense of Cinque, the man who led the Amistad rebellion.

"Now, if he were white, he wouldn't be standing before this court fighting for his life. If he were white and his enslavers were British, he wouldn't be able to stand, so heavy the weight of the medals and honors we would bestow upon him. Songs would be written about him. The great authors of our times would fill books about him. His story would be told and retold in our classrooms. Our children, because we would make sure of it, would know his name ..."

How well do we know Nat Turner's name? What song do you recall written about him? Has he ever been awarded a posthumous medal or honor from the U.S. Congress or the president?

Remembering Nat Turner is not a celebration of violence or vengeance. Calling him a hero for instigating violence is not hypocritical. His story and rebellion isn't solely about slavery, but fighting against oppression for one's freedom - and the length to which man, woman or child will go to regain it, once taken.


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Ralph Martin Jr  

Posted: February 14th, 2018 11:08 AM

Any and ALL enslaved Africans in the Americas who had the strength and courage and RAGE to battle against barbaric and brutal chattel slavery is a True African American Hero!!! Especially Nat Turner !!

James Jones from Chicago  

Posted: April 28th, 2017 1:33 PM

Nat Turner is a true African American hero, so what if he killed babies, he was a slave and he did what he had to do...

Mark Hunter  

Posted: January 9th, 2017 6:29 PM

Some slight inaccuracies in the article: The number of whites Turner and gang killed was between 55 and 60. Of them 25 were children, including at least two infants and one about four or five years of age. (Turner was neither brave nor heroic.) The gang grew to 60 or 70 and it was over in two days. Even the Ayn Rand Institute, created after Rand's death, engages in the same white liberal masochism as this article, see

Michael Kutafuta Elimu  

Posted: October 22nd, 2016 12:57 AM

Nat Turner is just as much a hero as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, all these men did exactly what turner did and more, so for anyone to claim he is not a hero because he killed children, i say to you, what about the women, men and children who were killed by these men, are they not to be considered heroes also?

Nathaniel Lawson  

Posted: October 9th, 2016 1:05 PM

I'm amazed at some folks calling Nat Turner a criminal. Were the soldiers fighting for the confederacy criminals? That's what's wrong with this country. When folks invoke their 1st amendment rights under the Constitution they are called unpatriotic but those same folks get upset if there's any suggestion of back ground checks for gun ownership. If America is to succeed we must make it great and fair for all or else it's going to become more divided and fair for no one. This is a new day America where Nat Turner will take his rightful place as a freedom fighter along side our other American heroes!

John Stones from Hardeeville, SC  

Posted: September 26th, 2016 1:15 PM

Not one African slave was ever transported to this country on a ship flying any Confederate flag. Nat Turner was a criminal and deserved to be treated as such. He set about to murder law abiding people. Making him a hero is the same mentality that makes law breakers heroes in our society today. Make law breakers heroes and burn and loot their own communities.

Gary Adams from Hayes, VA  

Posted: September 26th, 2016 12:25 PM

Using your reasoning that his story and rebellion isn't solely about slavery "?but fighting against oppression for one's freedom - and the length to which man, woman or child will go to regain it, once taken". Does that mean you'll condone our heroes Lee, Jackson Davis?

Spiritual Soldier from Tibet  

Posted: December 20th, 2014 11:45 PM

In order to truly understand Nat Turner's action you have to place yourself into the psychic of a slave in America during the 1400 to 1800s. If you believe that men and women can be use as BEAST and murdered and raped then you cannot truly offer a perspective. If you think that ripping a baby from its mothers womb and bashing its head against a tree is a good thing, then hey you can't see the traumatic events that led up to thE UPRISING as a necessary aspect of the environment it presented.

debby Decker from melbourne  

Posted: November 26th, 2014 11:57 AM

Just like a park should never be named after Liet. Calley Vietnam war killer


Posted: March 20th, 2013 4:11 PM

He killed babys with an ax

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